For all the hand-wringing in a week spent wondering whether the Vanderbilt Commodores have the Florida Gators’ number, their SEC Tournament quarterfinal matchup (7 p.m., SEC Network or WatchESPN) ought to boil down to some fairly simple things.
Can Florida stop Vanderbilt from shooting the lights out? The Gators did that in Memorial Gym last Saturday, forcing the ‘Dores to go inside — to seven-footer Luke Kornet, but also to Jeff Roberson and Nolan Cressler, whom Florida largely failed to stop. If the Gators could stymie Vandy inside while also keeping the three-happy Commodores from bombing away, they would probably win going away.
But Florida could also probably do that if it can strike a balance between its two offensive performances against Vanderbilt. KeVaughn Allen was brilliant for the full duration of the Gators’ home loss in January, but only good for so long last Saturday, vanishing down the stretch. Other Gators — Canyon Barry and Chris Chiozza, most notably — stepped up in Allen’s stead at Vandy, but Florida’s most potent scorer finished with the 13 points he scored in the first half.
Florida getting 20-plus points from Allen and something close to the 58 it got from other players last Saturday would probably be enough to beat Vandy, too.
In fact, it’s arguable that Florida needs to change absolutely nothing to beat the Vanderbilt team that has pipped it only by two points on two occasions. Four missed free throws from Barry and Allen — an outcome that probability says should happen about 0.01 percent of the time for the two 89 percent free throwers — helped doom the Gators in Nashville, while changing any one of Florida’s 17 misses or Vandy’s 10 makes from beyond the arc probably changes the outcome of the game in Gainesville.
These are two good teams that have played very close games, and — apart from received wisdom about the supposed difficulty of beating teams three times in a season that is far from peer-reviewed, and ignores outcomes like Florida and Kentucky blanking each other in three meetings in 2013 and 2014 — there’s nothing to suggest that they won’t play another close game in which a small thing decides the outcome. Likewise, there’s nothing to suggest that Florida is, on balance, inferior to the Commodores — and while it’s far from comforting, the best conclusion to draw from the Gators’ two close losses to Vandy is probably that Florida just got a little unlucky to lose those games.
Florida has a chance to avenge those losses and cement its status as a likely top-four seed in the NCAA Tournament on this Friday night, and it would certainly like to bounce back from that loss to Vandy — its second in three games — by winning convincingly in Nashville.
And whether the Gators will or won’t do that has everything to do with 40 minutes on the court, not three meetings in a year.